“I want to help the patient,” says the doctor after examining a woman in terrible pain and considering his limited resources. “But I don’t want to be her executioner.”
The veteran surgeon from Tennessee was on his first mission to Liberia with Medecins Sans Frontieres or Doctors Without Borders. In treating the world’s most desperate people, each MSF doctor has to make this kind of call many times a day.
Founded in France in 1971, MSF provides aid in more than 60 countries to people suffering the effects of war, epidemics and natural disasters. The group received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999.
After its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, “Living in Emergency” opens in select U.S. cities today before wider distribution later this month.
We spoke at Bloomberg world headquarters in New York.
Lundborg: When the doctors patch up a girl who was shot during a massacre of her entire family, they don’t hold out much hope for her future, nor is there any expectation of justice. How do they cope with endless, impotent rage?
Hopkins: The doctors who can live in the field are the ones who can get over that and really focus on what they can fix and not get too bummed out over the bigger context.
It’s hard to face the fact that you’re not changing the world.
Lundborg: Are they cowboys and adrenaline junkies?
Hopkins: They’re the Special Forces of the humanitarian world. They thrive on intense situations and when these people go back home, everything seems flat and boring.
They also have a good time, which is difficult for people to understand. It’s all facets of the human experience and everything is supercharged: work, friendship, fun, sorrow.
Lundborg: There are scenes of the doctors getting drunk and the head of mission recommending frequent sex as an antidote to death. How often do they get a chance to kick back?
Hopkins: Every night, unless you’re a surgeon on call. What tends to happen is that at six in the morning, everyone hammers into the hospital, works their guts out, and when it gets dark and there are no more patients, it’s back to the bunker. Often there’s a military curfew.
You have dinner and drinks and whatever.
Lundborg: Susan Sontag wrote in “On Regarding the Pain of Others” that images of atrocities can produce conflicting responses. How did you select what you show and what you don’t show?
Hopkins: You see a very small fraction of what the doctors experienced in terms of medical intensity, but it was important to show enough so that people understand something of the environment and the stakes involved.
Not all patients make it. It’s intense because it’s real.
Lundborg: No matter how tough you are, burnout is inevitable?
Hopkins: Your life and your work are pretty much the same thing. If you’re on the front lines, about 10 years is what most people can do before the horror gets to them.
Lundborg: You show a young doctor who can’t cope with the conditions essentially freaking out.
Hopkins: He was out of his depth, and it was not entirely his fault. At 26, he was the first doctor there in 15 years, and the road got cut off by rain, so what had been a half-hour car ride to the next town became a seven-hour slog.
He really lost it and started to make medical compromises that were unacceptable.
Lundborg: What was the response of the patients to the filming?
Hopkins: The patients and their families really wanted us to record what was going on. Instead of being ignored and left to die, they felt that here were people who valued their suffering.
Lundborg: What’s your next project?
Hopkins: I’m looking at making a Somali pirate film. My house in Kenya is actually on the beach 200 miles from the Somali border, and I grew up knowing these guys all my life.
(Zinta Lundborg is a writer for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)
To contact the reporter on this story: Zinta Lundborg in New York firstname.lastname@example.org.